Brought to Life: Eliot Hodgkin Rediscovered
By his death in 1987, Hodgkin (born 1905) was not only a renowned painter of still life subjects and landscapes, but also a collector and the author of a well-received novel. Waddesdon’s retrospective brings together the largest ever exhibition of Hodgkin’s paintings and drawings – nearly 100 – many of which have never been seen in public before.
It also assembles a small group of works by other artists that inspired him, and a number of the objects kept by his family which appear in the paintings.
Hodgkin mainly worked in oils and egg tempera, a technique that he revived and used to create masterly depictions of everyday objects, such as lemons, radishes, dead leaves and feathers, rendering them with almost uncanny accuracy. Many of his paintings were in the tradition of Dutch and Spanish still life, in the manner of AdriaenCoorteand SanchezCotan whom he greatly admired. Writing to his friend, Sir Brinsley Ford, Hodgkin stated: “I like to show the beauty of things that no one looks at twice.”
Coorte’s 1703 painting Asparagus Bundle, which can be closely compared with Hodgkin’s Four Asparagus (1961, The Ramsbury Manor Foundation) is coming to Waddesdon from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase next to a Pot of Tobacco(Private Collection) reveals the French painter’s influence on Hodgkin’s own preoccupation with flowers, as can be seen in pieces such as Maxie’s Poppies (1948, The Hodgkin Family Collection), Violets (1956, Private Collection), Three Pink Tulips (Fantasy) (1957, Private Collection) and Iceland Poppies No.1 (1970, Private Collection).
Hodgkin’s art is greatly prized by collectors – many of his works are still with the families of the original owners, which means that a large proportion of the exhibition comes from private collections, never usually on public display. There is also a Waddesdon connection through Lord Rothschild, who has long been a devotee of his work.
Another significant holding of the artist’s work is to be found at Ramsbury Manor in Wiltshire, home to the collection put together by Harry Hyams and now held in a philanthropic trust. Part of the exhibition will be devoted to an introduction to the history of this extraordinary, but very little-known, house.
Legendary art critic Brian Sewell recalled in his memoir that he first encountered Hodgkin’s work while strolling along Bond Street on his way to Christie’s – where he then worked. In the window of a furniture shop was a small painting called Mrs. Riley’s Milkweed. Arrested by the sight of ‘this strange little painting of dry stalks, dead leaves and bursting seed pods’, he bought it and treasured it until his death in 2015. Waddesdon is delighted that the picture will feature in the exhibition.
Sewell had recognised something fundamental to Hodgkin’s work. Responding to an enquiry from The Studio magazine in 1957, Hodgkin provided a brief description of his interest in still life painting: “In so far as I have any conscious purpose, it is to show the beauty of natural objects which are normally thought uninteresting or even unattractive: such things as Brussels sprouts, turnips, onions, pebbles and flints, bulbs, dead leaves, bleached vertebrae, an old boot cast up by the tide. People sometimes tell me that they had never really ‘seen’ something before I painted it, and I should like to believe this… For myself, if I must put it into words, I try to look at quite simple things as though I were seeing them for the first time and as though no one had ever painted them before.”
Brought to Life: Eliot Hodgkin Rediscovered surveys key areas of the artist’s career including: his early works such as October (1935, Tate), Cow Parsley (1935, Private Collection) and Two White Peonies (1939, The Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth House); still life studies including Quince (1941), Nine Strawberries (1955) and Lemons in a Paper Bag (1965) – all private collections; and landscapes and vistas such as Bridge at Chiswick Park (1949, Private Collection) and Landscape at Villars-sur-Ollon (1954, The Hodgkin Family Collection) and View of San Francesco (1965, The Hodgkin Family Collection).
A particular highlight of the exhibition will undoubtedly be a series of twelve intensely arranged fruit and flower compositions dating from 1950/1 – The Months – each representing a month of the year from January to December. These were the centrepiece of Harry Hyam’s collection at Ramsbury Manor and have not been publicly displayed for decades.
The exhibition also includes a selection of objects used by Hodgkin as props or subjects for his paintings. These include the oil can used for British Railway Oil Cans (1966, Private Collection), ceramics, baskets, feathers, seed cases and snail shells. There are also objects used by the artist himself, including his apron, paintbrushes and a register listing his tempera paintings and who commissioned them.
A hunt is currently underway to trace Hodgkin’s work – mostly London views – made during the Second World War, whose whereabouts are now unknown. Hodgkin’s grandson Mark – who along with his brother Mathew and art historian Adrian Eeles are currently coordinating a catalogue raisonné of Hodgkin’s work – explains. “During the war he produced a number of landscapes of London bomb sites with St Paul’s in the background, plus other works of famous landmarks such as Hampton Court, the Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London – but we have no idea where any of them now are. We’ve exhausted our resources in terms of finding these paintings and so now we need help to find them.”
Pippa Shirley, Head of Collections at Waddesdon Manor, says “We are very proud to be working on this exhibition with the Hodgkin family and Adrian Eeles, shining a well overdue light on a British artist who deserves to be far more widely celebrated. He is best knownas a painter of still life subjects,but less well known are his haunting views of bomb-sites in London after World War II, with rank weeds and wildflowers pushing up through mounds of rubble. We hope this exhibition will surprise and delight those who don’t know his work, capturing as it will the full range of his work, and other facets of his career as an artist, which have never been fully explored.”
The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue that features a forward by Neil MacGregor.